Monday, April 1, 2013

Ninotchka (1939)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch                              Writer: Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder
Film Score: Werner R. Heymann                 Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: Greta Garbo, Melvin Douglas, Ina Claire and Bela Lugosi

Ernst Lubitsch had a knack for finding obscure European stories to make into films at MGM, like The Shop Around the Corner and Ninotchka. The screenplay by Billy Wilder and his writing partner Charles Brackett is a romantic comedy staring Greta Garbo as a Russian envoy to Paris and Melvin Douglas as a gigolo who is captivated by her. The central idea of the story is that a group of Russians, in Paris to sell confiscated royal jewels, become seduced by the excesses of the Western lifestyle. This prompts Garbo’s entrance to take over the sale, but she is soon wooed by Douglas and the same situation ensues. When she finally returns to Russia and her normal life, the original three are sent to Constantinople and the minister himself, Bela Lugosi, sends her to bring them back.

Wilder and Bracket were assisted by Walter Reisch on the script and they did a wonderful job, especially with Douglass’s effusive character. The humor that they wring out of the contrast between the aloof Garbo and the passionate Douglass is absolutely charming. Also on hand are some great character actors. Of the three Russians, the most well known is the great Felix Bressart, one of Lubitsch’s virtual stock company. Another is played by Alexander Granach, who is most famous for playing the part of Knock in the German silent masterpiece Nosferatu. And the third of the trio is Sig Ruman, who is best known as Sergeant Schultz in Wilder’s Stalag 17. Gregory Gaye, who was refused entry into the gambling parlor in Casablanca, is also there as a room service waiter.

Ninotchka was Garbo’s second to last film before she retired. And though she won an honorary Oscar in 1954, she never again went before the cameras, moving to New York City for the rest of her life. Melvyn Douglas is his usual solid self. Though not the type one typically thinks of as a romantic lead, he had lengthy career playing all kinds of parts. The film is also great for being able to see Bela Lugosi in a straight role, showing what all of us who are fans have always known: the guy was a tremendous actor and never had the opportunity to show Hollywood what he was truly capable of. It’s little more than a cameo, but it makes me weep for what could have been.

The politics of the film are also fascinating. The Russians, of course, are shown as naïve in their idealism, easily swayed into giving it up for the abundance of the West. Coming as it did, prior to World War II, it’s a fascinating viewpoint. Once the U.S. had entered the war and joined the Soviet Union against the Axis, there’s no way that the government would have allowed that kind of negative portrayal of our Soviet allies. Though we don’t really think of the studio in that way, it seems MGM was generally in front of the curve. Just one year later, prior to Pearl Harbor, the studio released The Mortal Storm with Jimmy Stewart, an anti-Nazi film that earned the studio a reprimand from the government for taking sides in a war we hadn’t yet committed to. Ninotchka is a wonderful romantic comedy with overt political overtones that make it one of the great films of the pre-war period.

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